Sunday School Stories: Joseph, Part II
Today we hear the end of Joseph's saga, at least as the Bible records, but we miss a lot of the middle section. So let me fill you in, or remind you, of what happened, after we left Joseph, sold into slavery to Ishmaelites by his brothers last week. Joseph's brothers let Jacob, his father, believe Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. Meanwhile, Joseph is sold as a slave to Potiphar, the captain of the Pharaoh's – the king of Egypt's guard. Things go well for Joseph, though, in spite of circumstances. The scriptures read: ʺThe Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands.ʺ Joseph, though a slave, makes a place for himself in Potipharʹs house, and because God is with Joseph, Potiphar is also blessed.
But Potipharʹs wife, one of the many unnamed women of the Bible, pursues Joseph, and wants to have sex with him. Joseph refuses, and when he does, she sets it up to look like Joseph was trying to attack her. Potiphar is enraged, and throws Joseph into prison. While in prison, the Pharaoh's cupbearer and baker are also thrown into prison. There, they both have strange dreams, and Joseph, familiar with dreams, is able to interpret them. The baker will be put to death, but the cupbearer will be restored to his position with the Pharaoh. It happens just as Joseph predicts. But instead of helping Joseph get free of jail, the cupbearer forgets his story. That is, until the Pharaoh begins having strange dreams himself. Suddenly, the cupbearer remembers the strange man that interpreted his dreams long ago. Pharaoh sends for Joseph, and Joseph listens to and explains his dreams, saying it isn’t he but God who is interpreting. Essentially, Pharaoh's dreams are foretelling seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. But with this knowledge, Joseph leads Egypt through careful planning, becoming Pharaoh's right hand man, and Egypt is in good shape when the famine comes.
However, Jacob and his sons have not fared so well, and they eventually make their way to Egypt, with the brothers unknowingly seeking favors from Joseph, who they sold into slavery and claimed was dead. Joseph recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him. It’s as good as a soap opera, really. It involves Joseph framing one of the brothers for theft, Reuben again being the only sensible one, and Joseph weeping repeatedly and loudly, but eventually we hit our passage for today, where Joseph reveals himself: I am Joseph. I am your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Don’t be upset because of what you did, because God sent me here in order to save you. After this, and after the brothers affirm that Joseph really really forgives them and isn’t just waiting until their father dies to get revenge on them all, Joseph concludes in the final chapter of Genesis with what I think is the key verse in his story. He says, ʺEven though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.ʺ
Last week, we talked about how God uses people that are, well – questionable characters sometimes. We thought about those whom God calls and we wonder what God is up to, and I hope we also wondered about the grace of God that calls even us, as much as we can be pains in the butt like young Joseph. But this week, I think our story pushes us to ask even harder questions. The conclusion of Joseph's story brings us a decidedly grown-up and matured Joseph, a Joseph who is able, without hesitation, to forgive his family for what he has endured, and to look over his life and see God at work in every place. Joseph keeps saying things like: ʺFor God sent me before you to preserve life. God sent me before you to preserve you for a remnant on earth. It was not you who sent me here, but God. God has made me a father to Pharaoh,ʺ and finally, what I think is the sum of how Joseph feels, ʺEven though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.ʺ
Joseph's story is a story of incredible forgiveness. Joseph grows up and he isn’t now who he used to be. He has been changed. His time as a slave, his time in prison, his time in a foreign land – all of this has made Joseph into a real leader, grounded, serious, looking beyond his own welfare. Sometimes when we have been wronged by someone, or had a bad or painful experience with someone, we're unable to let them ever be anything other than the person that once hurt us. Often, we don’t leave space for reconciliation and healing in our relationships. Joseph doesn’t end up as the bratty kid he started out as. What if we could only ever see him that way?
You might know that I've been keeping a journal since fifth grade. Every once in a while, I like to look back and read what I've said through the years. It gives me hope, knowing that we change and mature. Not just from childhood to adulthood, but I also like looking over my years of ministry and seeing changes from my first year to this, my ninth year in ministry! Some patterns are the same, some things I still struggle with – but thank God, change is possible. We don’t always have to be stuck in the broken patterns of our lives. So where we have wronged, and where we have been wronged, we have to believe that with God's help, we don’t stand still in the midst of our sins. We move on and beyond to where God calls us. The rift between Joseph and his brothers – who would think that it could ever be conquered? Who would think that they would ever meet again and not want to kill each other, but instead meet with tears of joy? But this forgiveness comes only when we believe that God can work as much in the lives of those that have hurt us as God can in our own lives.
And for Joseph, forgiveness happens because of his belief that God has been involved in, and in fact was shaping everything that happened to him. And here is where we hit the hard questions. This idea is called God's Providence – the idea that God is shaping and guiding our destiny. Joseph sees that God had a plan for him all along – if his brothers hadn’t sold him into slavery, maybe they would have all starved together during the famine, right? Skeptics among us might wonder though – couldn’t God have just figured out a different way? Did Joseph have to be a slave in order to grow up and save his family?
For me, this is where understanding God as a parent is most helpful. And here I mean not the parent like Jacob who clearly has a most favorite child. But God the parent who has endless love for all of us. Parents, can you prevent every bad thing from happening to your child? You might wish it with all your heart and soul, but you know it isn’t possible. And you certainly can’t prevent your children from making some dumb choices, can you? In fact, you know it would be best if you didn’t prevent them, sometimes, right? Although I often tease people that their life would be better if I could just make decisions for them, I know that isn’t true. Because what is life, really, if we don’t have choices? If we don’t have any decisions to make? We don’t want to stay babies forever, and we don’t want to stay spiritual babies either. And God doesn’t want that for us either, anymore than you would want your children never to grow into their whole, independent, wonderful, unique selves, even as they drive you crazy along the way.
But what you do want, what you can do, is be there all along the way, ready to help in every crisis, looking for ways to make the best out of your child’s mistakes and sins, looking for ways to turn awful situations into situations of hope and maybe even joy. And hopefully your children will know they can depend on you, and trust you, and listen to you once in a while! God's intents for us are always good. And God never leaves us or forsakes us. But neither does God seek to make us into babies, never able to make our own (sometimes bad) choices. Whatever we make of our lives, though, God is always willing to take the pieces and show us what they can become, when we work together, when we are willing to follow the risky path God lays out for us.
Bad things happening to us isn’t God abandoning us, but God freeing us to live in the world and choose what we will be and who we will become, instead of God deciding it all for us. And God's Providence, God guiding us isn’t God controlling us. Providence is knowing that God always intends good for us, and that God can always take our brokenness, and call us to wholeness. Thanks be to God. Amen.